Making Your Own Smoked Salmon Is Easier Than You’d Think

Hot-smoked salmon is versatile, delicious, and easy to make.

Published Aug. 31, 2023.

If you’ve heard that smoking salmon is an arduous task requiring a smoker and many hours tending the coals—not to mention the time spent curing the fish first—you wouldn’t be far off. If, that is, you were thinking of the cold-smoked kind that’s usually cut into silky, paper-thin slices.

Hot-smoked salmon, so named for being smoked over higher heat, is a whole different story. If you have access to a grill and just a couple of hours, it’s simple to hot-smoke your own salmon.  

Not only that, but it’s significantly cheaper than buying it. 

In my family, hot-smoked salmon is a luxury that we treat ourselves to once or twice a year. The flame-orange fillets are delicately chewy at the surface, densely silky inside, and gently suffused with bittersweet smoke. 

Even so, I can’t help but wince as I fork over more than twice as much as I would for an already pricey raw fillet. I scrape every morsel from the package (including the smoky salmon oil that’s clinging to the plastic—a condiment all its own) and ration it over good black bread with mustard sauce, as an extra-special protein atop a salad, or simply with lemon or alongside a scoop of steamed short-grain rice and some quick pickles. Sometimes Ill add it to a batch of kedgeree, Britains jumble of buttery rice and onions dotted with flakes of smoked fish, hard-cooked eggs, and herbs—all infused with lemony brightness. 

So imagine my delight when Deputy Food Editor Andrea Geary created a recipe for hot-smoked salmon that I can make in only a few hours, any time it’s warm enough to grill, and for only as much as the salmon costs. 

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What’s the Difference Between Hot-Smoked and Cold-Smoked Salmon?

The core difference is that hot-smoked salmon is cured briefly (for a few hours) and cooked as it smokes, whereas cold-smoked salmon is cured until it’s fully preserved (for at least 1 day and often longer) and then sees minimal heat as it’s smoked (for at least 12 hours) because it’s usually placed in a separate chamber from the heat source. 

As a result, hot- and cold-smoked salmon look and taste very different. The hot-smoked kind more closely resembles conventionally cooked salmon; it’s typically cut into fillets and features firm flesh that easily flakes apart. Cold-smoked salmon tastes saltier and its texture is silky and moist—more like gravlax or crudo. It’s typically cut on a bias into delicate, translucent slices.

How to Hot-Smoke Salmon

Andrea spent weeks developing a hot-smoking method that produces salmon resembling the fish she enjoyed while working as a chef in Scotland. 

There are three basic steps: curing, air-drying, and smoking. 

  1. Cure salmon. Curing involves applying salt (and often sugar) to the flesh side of a skin-on fillet. Andrea likes the way a sweeter cure complements the flavor of the rich fish, so she uses a mixture of 3 parts kosher salt to 4 parts sugar by weight. The salmon then sits for a few hours to season the fish and draw out some moisture, which makes it a bit denser and firmer. The salt and sugar in the cure also dissolve some of the proteins in the salmon and draw them to the surface; the proteins later bond and form hot-smoked salmon’s distinctive tacky surface.
  2. Air-dry salmon. Air-drying (the salt is rinsed off the fish first) encourages moisture to evaporate, which helps those dissolved proteins bond together in the sticky surface film. That film is critical to capturing flavorful vapors in the smoke when the fish goes out to the grill; if the surface is too wet, the smoke simply slides off. Andrea found that refrigerating the salmon for anywhere from 4 to 20 hours dried out its surface enough to ensure robust smoke flavor.
  3. Smoke salmon. Smoking salmon on a grill (charcoal or gas) involves building a moderate fire on one side, adding some wood chips, and placing the fish opposite the fire. Then you put the cover on and let the smoke and the gentle heat waft over the fish until it’s just cooked.The fish is done when it registers 125 degrees and is still translucent at the center. For a 4-pound side of salmon, that can take anywhere from 50 minutes to 1 hour 10 minutes.

Tips for Setting Up Your Grill for Smoking

Fuel: Use about 3 quarts of coals for charcoal, or 1 lit burner for gas.

Wood chips: Use 1 cup for charcoal, 1½ cups for gas. Wrap the chips in a foil packet that measures 8 by 4½ inches, and make sure they don’t poke holes in the foil. If using gas, make sure there are no more than 2 layers of foil on the bottom of the packet. Cut 3 evenly spaced 2-inch slits in the top of the packet. 

Aluminum foil: Cooking the fish on a piece of foil (coated with nonstick spray) will make it easy to lift off the grill and prevent sticking. 

Smoked salmon is such a treat, and even more rewarding—and far more economical—when you make it yourself. Plus, it freezes beautifully. Once cooled, it can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and frozen for up to 2 months.


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